Contests can pay off, even if you don’t win. Each February, the deadline shows up for the Writer’s League of Texas Manuscript Contest. It can be a difficult contest to win: it expects authors to present their books in just 2,750 words. That includes a synopsis. The goodness of your full book has to be excerpted to less than three percent of its full word count. That synopsis should be tight in that contest; 400 words is plenty. Don’t use up the word count just to show off your craft.
Members pay $25 to submit to the WLT contest, or $55 if they would like an evaluation from a contest judge. (Non-members pay $10 more.) The entry fee cost, as well as the number of categories, are a couple of things to calculate to factor the full value of entering contests. If you’re the kind of writer who often submits their work anyway, then paying for a contest might be a poor value. But if you write, rewrite, write more while you trim back, all with no end in mind, contests can pay off.
Paying for the submissions forces you to Show Your Work, as Austin Kleon says in his book of the same name. The attraction of a prize might get an author off the revision treadmill. The deadline for those contests is the real prize that everyone wins. It’s possible that an author has never worked to a definite, outside deadline. The book contract is a deadline document with calculable value. Those contracts have deadlines for delivery, plus another for acceptance.
Acceptance is the publisher’s deadline, the starting gun on getting an author paid. Acceptance defines the time limit to read and accept the work. Editors, copyeditors, even proofreaders might need to green-light the submission. In a contest, entries are accepted until a deadline, but then authors should look for a date when winners will be notified. It’s not unusual to see a date more than six months in the future.
For example, Foreword Reviews is inviting authors to submit in a contest. Any books published this year from publishers outside of the Big Five empire are eligible for the Foreword Indies. In practice, self-published books struggle to make the cut, largely because the publishers’ books have had plenty of editorial and design work. Those Foreword contest books might be published as late as this December, though. That means the contest won’t be over until the judging is completed. The 2022 book you might submit this year won’t be a winner before the middle of 2023.
Terms of a contract, or rules for a contest, ought to be well-defined. This is what an agent or a good intellectual property attorney will do for you when you get a contract offer, the ultimate submission prize. Many IP attorneys have seen book contracts before, so if you’re already in the submission stage with a publisher, their help might be enough. The contract should also have some sort of description of what’s to be delivered.
Writer’s Digest is on the hunt for contest submissions. Its annual writing competition has more than 90 winners: 10 in each of the nine categories, plus a grand prize winner. Finishing sixth through tenth earns you a $25 gift certificate to the Digest website. You get to identify your story, memoir excerpt, or play as a finalist, too. First prize in each of the categories is $1,000 plus publication on the website.
Many contests, including the Writer’s Digest awards, go through the Submittable website. It’s free to register an account on Submittable. If there’s any contest fee, it’s collected by Submittable via credit card and passed along to the publication or the press.
Submittable also has a lively webpage to find contests. You can sort by phrases like "personal essay" or "young adult," and the contests without fees are easy to find. Consider putting aside a small budget for submitting, though. The act of regular submission is the mark of an advanced author.